News Corp’s free speech comes at a terrible price

No doubt, you’ve heard about how corporations have both caused climate change and delayed climate action. #ExxonKnew, #StopAdani, etc. Ditto for politicians – climate become an ideological identity marker that conservative politicians cling to around the world; defining themselves on both their denial of the problem and their capacity to wreck efforts to resolve it.

Largely left out of the conversation has been the role of media organisations. Conservative media in particular – with News Corp at the centre – has become the primary conduit for, in the 2000s and 2010s, the denial of climate science and, in the 2010s and 2020s, the delay of solutions through fear campaigns.

News Corp has played a massive role in maintaining catastrophic climate inaction. They have done bad things, and harmful things. They have lied, shunned evidence and science, and they haven’t felt the slightest consequence for doing so. They are free in the truest and most literal sense of the word: they never pay a price for their wrongdoing.

Free or good?

Recently, Extinction Rebellion blocked a range of media outlets in the United Kingdom from publishing newspapers by blockading printing presses. The reaction was deeply predictable: hand-wringing about censorship and a ‘free press’:

It is, of course, an unintentionally accurate diagnosis of the problem. Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets are mostly free to badly and seriously misinform the public as part of a broader political effort to protect fossil fuel industries and their eye-watering donations to political parties.

The act of spreading misinformation that leads directly to the harm of both human and animal life on Earth – to the tune of many millions of lives lost – ought to be something that is regulated against. The press should still be free, but it should face consequences if it’s bad; like so many other industries already do. At the very least, it ought to be something that human conscience and moral awareness ought to protect against. But News Corp’s 28,000 employees posses no such compass.

Like the phrase ‘free speech’, ‘free press’ distracts from issues of quality, safety, responsibility and accuracy. You don’t see debates about ‘good speech’, and you won’t hear someone calling for a ‘good press’ as vital to democracy. ‘Free’ is a desperate plea for those already in possession of incredible power to harm us to be free of even the mildest, tiniest consequences for doing so. ‘Free speech’ means ‘harmful speech, free of consequences for that harm’, in much the same way. ‘Free’ here doesn’t refer to authoritarian, censorious government regimes. It means never paying price for doing something black-hearted and cruel.

The fact that newspapers, media and journalism became one of the key conduits for something that deeply hurt us as a species ought to inspire even a slightly moment of introspection, for those responding to XR’s action. They ought to ponder why they’re more worried about ‘free’ than they are about ‘an industry run in a way that doesn’t contribute significantly to our self-destruction’.

News Corp’s climate harm is vast beyond words

It feels almost silly to provide some examples of where News Corp has caused climate harm, because this cannot be comprehensive without reproducing much of the entire output of this organisation. I am going to select a few recent examples from Australia, but rest assured, this is less than 1% of the situation in this company.

  • The Australian newspaper created and spread a myth that Australia’s climate-intensified bushfire season was sparked by ‘183 arsonists’. That was a lie, but it was shared by the Trump family (the paper published plenty of denialist content during the Black Summer disaster).
  • Sky News Australia, owned by News Corp, hosts a range of deniers like Bolt, Alan Jones and Rowan Dean. Their viewership is small, but growing thanks to free-to-air broadcast in regional Australia and a liberal use of Youtube to spread clips virally.
Via a Media Watch analysis of News Corp’s response to the Black Summer bushfire crisis
  • “There are no carbon emissions. If there were, we could not see because most carbon is black” – from an op-ed published by The Australian in the midst of the Black Summer bushfire crisis – several weeks prior to the organisation pleading that it does not deny climate change.
  • “Innocents burnt in the flames of green ideology – YOU can’t overlook the deadly green ideas that contributed to the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London”, wrote News Corp columnist Miranda Devine, days after the tragedy in which 79 people lost their lives.

Again, it feels silly to even document this. I haven’t even stepped into the campaign to inisist climate change has ‘paused’, or ‘wind turbine syndrome’, or the carbon price and blackouts and…it’s just too much. That’s before we even leave the shores of Australia, or look at Fox News.

This will get worse if nothing changes

When News Corp were challenged in February 2020 about their denial of a role of climate in the bushfire crisis, they responded with this:

“To suggest, as Media Watch is doing, that on major issues in Australia there cannot be many opinions aired across media platforms is contrary to the role of free and open media”

Framing this as ‘many opinions’ in a ‘free media’ is marketing guff for weaponised lying used to protect obscenely rich fossil fuel executives.

The Black Summer crisis was meant to be a watershed moment for News Corp, as number one boy James Murdoch spoke out against the family’s haywire denialism and delay.

Mostly, nothing has changed beyond a massive drop in the quantity of media reports on climate change, matching a trend across all Australian (and global) outlets:

Orange = News Corp, Green = Fairfax / Nine

All that’s happened is that News Corp have been granted a giant multi-year block of time to allow everyone to forget its promise to drop climate misinformation. It continues to squeeze as much as it can between COVID19 misinformation; even continuing to insist that climate played no role in the bushfires.

It is through these campaigns that News Corp shows exactly why it values a free press, and freedom of speech, so highly. It takes those rights and abuses them. Freedom means they are not bound to be correct, to be good, or to be fair. They are free to avoid evidence, or fabricate it. They are free to cause harm, to enrich themselves. They are free to target individuals, and damage their capacity to conduct science.

They are an inherently bad company, with inherently bad goals achieved through inherently bad tactics. It makes sense that the phrase ‘good press’ never features in their pleas, and ‘free press’ is a constant.

The broader issue – one that extends well past News Corp – is that the consequences of climate change are not being reported as such. A Media Matters study showed that “US broadcast news coverage of Australian fires largely fails to connect the crisis to climate change”; something I strongly suspect would be equally the case in Australia. Though accepting climate science as real is no longer seen as biased by senior Australian journalists, mention of climate change in reports of disasters linked to climate are rare. Political narratives – such as the myth that climate action is economically harmful – easily spread like wildfire across all media outlets, including public broadcasters. The centrist habit of “usually punching left while sympathies with the right” drives the urge to uncritically repeat conservative climate mythology while either denying or ignoring scientific and activist information.

Someone pays the price for News Corp’s existence as a ‘free press’ – one that is rightly unrestricted by authoritarianism, but proceeds to use that freedom as a tool of oppression and harm against citizens. The corporation has had decades to change, and it’s getting worse, instead. What options is there, beyond rebellion?

It’s already clear that there’s no hope of introspection or reform.XR’s protest provided an easy escape for Very Serious People to declare their adherence to the Principles of a Free Press, instead of spending any time engaging with the constant wildfire of climate misinformation and the actual wildfires that it intensifies.

For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that our lives are vulnerable to the concentrated power of media moguls and nefarious editors, whose aggressive anti-science worldviews have played out over the past few decades with disastrous consequence.

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